Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Tie That Binds

We never celebrated Raksha Bandhan when we were little. Once when I was around 8-10 years of age, I suggested to my brother that we should, but he quickly shot down the idea. I suspected then that it was the gift he was afraid of. To be fair to him, I must add that the gift alone was the incentive which had motivated me to proffer the suggestion.


Even though we never actually marked Raksha Bandhan in our childhood home, I always remained solidly conscious of my brother’s love for me.


I still recall how he returned home triumphantly, his first career bonus in his pocket, only to find that celebrations were not the mood of the season as I was burning with a hot fever, while shivering with malaria. He quickly said that I should be rushed to a hospital, brushing aside the funds issue. Eventually he ended up spending almost all his bonus money on me.


As children, we were as close as twins. We used to read, study and play together. We could finish each other’s sentences, knowing with an unerring instinct what the other was thinking. We’ve laughed without stopping at the most trivial and nonsensical things as if we were both struck by laughing gas.


And we shared. It was a habit inculcated by our mother. She would break up anything that we both enjoyed eating and divide it equally between us. Whether it was chocolate or cake, it would be broken up into two and given to both of us. So well was this concept of sharing ingrained in our minds that even if a friend’s mother offered me something to eat, I would ask her, “Has A eaten?” and he would ask the same question with reference to me.


Once a neighbour answered my question with a No, and I staunchly refused to take whatever she was offering. Helpless in the face of my stubbornness, the poor lady responded that she would make sure that A got his equal share.


Sometimes, of course, I would try to irritate him by calling him Bhaiyya or I would sing one of the Hindi film rakhi songs. These songs are very cheesy expressions of brother-sister love. Taken out of the context of the accompanying visuals, and sometimes within them too, they have the gift of sounding totally inane.


Mercifully, he didn’t hold these cheesy songs against me. In spite of those songs, and in spite of the lack of a rakhi to bind us together, we remained bound up in each other.


Today decades later, I have the comfort of knowing that even though other relationships now make greater demands on us, and in some ways, have taken precedence, we remain conscious of and deeply grateful for each other. His phone calls home are always punctuated by questions on how my family and I are doing.


While Hindi film songs spoke of how the hero-brother would go to any lengths to help his supporting actress of a little sister, including devoting the rest of his life to restoring her honour or avenging it, she too would often come racing into the path of a speeding bullet meant for him. Real life, however, doesn’t work that way. Over the years, I have had my illusions destroyed.


I have seen brothers and sisters cut off the bonds of the rakhi themselves, and fight fiercely and deviously over money and property matters. In an infamous case that hit the headlines many decades ago, three sisters got together to hire an assassin to shoot their brother in order to wrest control of a family-owned restaurant in downtown Bombay.


That case and many other instances of sibling love gone sour are a reminder that a rakhi’s threads are delicate indeed, powerless on their own, and thoroughly incapable of holding two people with different personalities and opposing interests together. Shared histories can hold people together, but only if we adorn those histories, and the people who shared those histories with us, with significance.


Today El Niño and La Niña celebrated Raksha Bandhan together. It is a happy time for them. The spotlight was on them. There were fun things to eat, and the Husband bought gifts for them. They are, of course, much too young to understand the meaning of the ritual they will undertake.


I watch them, and think how sweet they are to each other. They are just beginning to understand the concept of a family, of parents and how they are both equally important in the scheme of things. I hope that at some point, they begin to see the festival of Raksha Bandhan as something that goes beyond the ritual of gifting and tying rakhis.



I hope that their relationship grows stronger as the years go by and that they realise that the rakhi is a slender thread, but they must make sure that it is tied well. 


They must be the glue that holds it together.



This post was originally written for Parentous.com, an online community for parenting related issues.






Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Haunting

At the stroke of midnight, she sallied forth.

White saree -- Check

Lit candle -- Check

Hair untied -- Check



The street was deserted, and she was feeling more than a little nervous.


It was not her first time haunting. But the last three times, she had failed to do her bit, and had become the laughing stock of the community. At least this time, she hoped to make a good impression.


This was after all what was expected of her. If the others came to know of the uneasiness that tormented her non-existent heart, they'd laugh louder. There'd be no getting away from the embarrassment.


She had watched the others at work. But in the other life, the one before this state, she had been a well-brought up girl from a good family. Laughing raucously in people's faces, opening the mouth wide to reveal fangs that dripped with blood -- these were not things she approved of. Or enjoyed doing. She longed for release but it was not to be, Merciful release had eluded her so far.


Suddenly the stillness of the night was pierced by some loud and off-key singing. A dark figure, emerging from the distance, zigzagged his way across the street. The figure came closer and she recognised him. He worked in some office downtown, What he earned during the week he blew up on the weekend. He had a wife and three children back home, who dreaded his return home.


Startled, she could barely get her teeth to stop chattering. She quickly ducked behind a tree, only to remember seconds after hiding that she was invisible. Still, it was a wise move. Drunkards can often see what the sober cannot. and she didn't want to frighten this hapless unfortunate needlessly.


She knew the signs and could predict the way they would lead him. Before long, he'd be borrowing, begging, even stealing to fuel his drinking habit. He needed something to jolt him, frighten him out of his wits so he'd never touch the stuff again.


Should she do it? She thought of that other life. It had been lived only for herself. She alone was the intended beneficiary of every single act she had committed, of every word she had spoken.


She wondered now. Was that why Death had not brought peace? Was it because she had been selfish and had thought only of herself? Would it help if she did one good deed for someone else?


She hesitated, but for a moment.. Then appeared in front of the man, laughing that raucous laugh she so hated.


The man beheld the spirit, fear and disbelief fighting for control over his face, and then he began to run. For a man who a few seconds alone had struggled to walk, he managed to canter along quite briskly. 



She learned later that he never drank again. The haunting had sobered him up with lasting effect.


The news increased her standing within the community. Not that it mattered anymore. She had decided to devote the rest of her life, this in-between life, to doing more such stuff.


She smiled to herself. This was going to be fun.




This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda





Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Review: LAND OF THE SEVEN RIVERS

Title: Land of the Seven Rivers
Author: Sanjeev Sanyal
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 331







I was prepared to enjoy Sanjeev Sanyal's Land of The Seven Rivers ever since I read the second line of his Author's Note in which he says, "as I wrote this book, it felt like I have been preparing for it for all my adult life. Ideas, facts and conversations that I seem to have hidden away somewhere in my head all came tumbling out as I wrote out the chapters one by one.

Reading through this interesting book gave me, as a reader, the sensation of a work to which the author has given his all. The depth of research and reading that he has done for this book is simply fantastic and highly impressive. I can well believe his statement that if the publishers had not taken the draft away from him, he would have continued with the research forever.

The strength of that research and the power of the narrative gives the lie to the British imperialist claim that they were in India in order to civilize her and that India has had no civilisational history. 

India, the book amply proves, has never needed civilizing. Her heritage extends back over many thousands of years, over the passage of which, different groups of people, friendly or inimical, whether seeking to conquer or to find refuge against persecution, have been assimilated. Even when India fought against the devious intentions of the marauding invaders, she still adopted and retained the positive vestiges of their culture, as in the case of the Mughals and their biryani.

The vestiges of ancient times remain with us in so many ways. Just as the Uttara Path and the Dakshina Path met at Varanasi, the British-built Northern Railway and Southern Railway had their nerve centre in Mughalsarai, just outside Varanasi.

Through this fact-rich book, Sanyal teaches us to be fascinated with this enormous country, so full of contradictions, polarities and differences, where fact meets fiction and legend, and where mythology and symbology are always within arm's reach.

The author begins by placing India in the context of the history and geography of the world, by explaining the tectonic shifts and other occurrences that caused the landmass known as the Indian subcontinent to break away from the larger landmass to which it had been attached for hundreds of thousands of years.

The book traverses India’s monumental journey from the time it asserted its independence by breaking away from the larger landmass up to its political Independence from British imperial rule, 

Along the way, it reveals how life sprang and flourished around India’s many rivers, the importance of the symbology of the lion not only to India but in other ancient cultures too, the linkages of trade and how they helped navigators to seek out the world and map it, bit by bit. 


There is a chapter on the many visitors that India has had, from the Mughal and Turkish invaders to the Parsis who came to escape the persecution, and the scholars who thronged India’s ancient universities. The establishment of the railway system and the high noon of the British empire in India and the story of how the joy of India’s Independence gave way to the trauma and misery of the Partition bring up the rear in this book, that, like the rivers of India, flows easily and seamlessly across the ages.

Sanyal succeeds in placing the history of India within the context of its geography, its political climate and its literature and mythology. Without getting into the finer details of the authenticity of India’s epics, he tells readers that the places mentioned in such elaborate detail are very real. One of the greatest strengths of his work is that he has been able to talk about history parallelly and to make ancient history relevant to our times. 

Sanyal draws interesting parallels where few of us would have seen any. Stating that the lion is important to the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka, he adds that it is not entirely coincidental that the rebel LTTE named themselves after the other big cat, that is the rival of the lion.

The book also reminded me that history’s lessons are re-presented to us, if we fail to learn from them the first time around. Even today, we see ageing rulers who can’t give up the trappings of power. In another instance, I learned that even a document as strategic as Kautilya’s Arthashastra specified fines for urinating and defecating near a water reservoir, temple or royal palace. 

Sanyal's observations are thought provoking. The idea that the Ramayana is after all the first piece of Dalit literature to occupy such an important place in Hindu religious orthodoxy is audacious but so true. Sanyal also clarifies misconceptions about Sanskrit being a ‘pure’ language.

The humour is very subtle – you might miss it if you’re not careful. In the chapter on trade, he tells us that Italian and Arabian wines were imported in large quantities in ancient times, tracing to this the Indian love for imported alcohol. 

Remarkably, Sanyal’s own voice remains neutral, helping to establish the authenticity of his work. The book is filled with historical and anecdotal detail, but the style is that of a story, and I could well imagine the narrative as a speaking voice inside my head as I read. It was like getting into a time machine and visiting bygone times, without worrying about the risk of altering history or destroying the time-space continuum.

Land of The Seven Rivers reminded me that the best way to teach history and geography is to shear it of its dates and definitions, and make it a story, told by a hoary, wise one to a group of avid listeners, as the lights from the flickering bonfire casts dancing shadow on their faces.

Lessons learned decades ago about the Indus Valley Civilisation and other dynasties that conquered and were vanquished, at various points in time, came back to me. Sanyal’s prose causes powerful warriors and leaders, teachers and builders to walk out from the pages of history and present their motivations to us. The narrative gives us a taste of the architecture, the literature and the life styles of the folk of those times. 

This is not Around the World in 80 Days. This is around the world across the ages and time and space – all in 331 pages. And of course, bonus points for the interesting cover.



A free copy of this book was sent to me by Think WhyNot in exchange for an honest review.







Thursday, August 08, 2013

Book Review: HEART LIKE MINE

Title: Heart Like Mine
Author: Amy Hatvany
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Pages: 370









Heart Like Mine by Amy Hatvany is a touching, poignant read that explores relationships in a family, thrown off-kilter by the death of one of them.

Grace McAllister, a 36-year-old single woman whose idea of her future definitely didn't include children, meets and falls in love with Victor Hansen, a handsome divorced man who owns and runs a restaurant. But Victor is also father to 7-year-old Max and 13-year-old Ava, and for his sake, Grace becomes willing to be a part-time stepmother. The children live full time with their mother, so the arrangement promises to be tangle-free for her and Victor. All is well in Grace's world until one day when Kelli dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, upsetting the fragile and complicated web of relationships between them.

The death comes just days after Kelli comes to know of Victor's engagement with Grace. Grace is immediately consumed by guilt as to whether it was the engagement that was responsible for her death.

The novel is written from the viewpoints of Grace, Ava and Kelli. Three feminine perspectives, relating to the one man and the web of relationships that they share with each other. Through the three accounts, one feels torn as the writing leads us on to sympathise with each viewpoint in turn.

We see life through the eyes of teenage Ava, who is but a child, yet forced, by family circumstances, to grow up and assume the responsibilities of an adult. We watch with admiration as she navigates the tricky landscape of life as a teenager coming of age while looking out for a mother who needs more looking after than she can provide. Forced to assume the role of a grownup while her dysfunctional mother gets used to her as a support system, Ava's account reveals her maturity.

Ava is fiercely loyal of her mother, even when she does things that cause others to laugh at her, and hopeful that the family that has disintegrated with her parents' divorce will reunite someday. It is a hope that she maintains even after her father's seriousness of intentions regarding Grace becomes known.

Grace, on the other hand, does not want the role of a mother, yet is forced to accept it when the role is thrust upon her.

Kelli's account is the one that the reader reads, hoping to find in it some of the anguish and the pain that led her to take the drastic step of taking her own life. The sections that spell out her rejection by acquaintances and her regret for what she has lost are beautiful. Kelli's account is in the third person, perhaps indicative of her restless, unstable state of mind.

The book brings you face to face with many aspects of womanhood, and reveals the strong and fierce network of girl friends and how women stand up for each other. All the three women have a best friend whose unstinting loyalty they can depend on, no questions asked. Grace runs Second Chances, an organisation that provides support, temporary housing and job placement assistance to battered woman.

Author Amy Hatvany has shown herself adept at understanding the mindsets of women at different age groups and portraying them effectively. The writing is beautiful. Through it all, Kelli, despite being flawed in her own way, earns our sympathy and regard. As does Grace, who seen from Kelli's eyes, is the Other Woman who had destroyed any hope of a reconciliation with her estranged husband.


The triumph of Hatvany's work is that she successfully shows that no one is bad. It is the choices that determine how we might view them.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley.







Wednesday, August 07, 2013

That first step

I met my friend, L, at lunch yesterday. L and her husband, are moving to Australia later this month. This is not their first trip to Australia. The couple have had a month-long vacation in Sydney and have enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

I asked L if she was excited about the impending move. She replied that she was excited, but that this time around there was an element of fear, of uncertainty, of discomfort, at the thought of rebuilding their lives from scratch. From finding a job to finding a house, getting settled into their new routine, adjusting to new neighbours, a land where almost everyone was a stranger, learning the ins and outs of their new home-city, learning to fit in -- all these were fraught with peril.


So much of our lives depend on things being the way they have always been, of being able to predict just how things will go, that it must be unsettling to have to relearn everything all over again.

Her uncertainties reminded me that it isn't children alone who are wary of taking those first few steps. As a mother of two young children under the age of 5, I remember well how nervous both of them were about putting their best foot forward. They would walk by holding the furniture or the wall, but it was a while before they felt confident enough to risk falling just for the joy of walking.


My husband and I, and their paternal grandparents, would urge them on, tell them to start walking, that we were close at hand, that we would never let them fall. But I knew from one look at La Niña's face, and later on at El Niño's face when it was his turn, that it wasn't so easy to believe us.

I remember getting frustrated at such times that they were not willing to listen to me.

Yesterday after L mentioned her fears to me, I realised the fear of taking that first step. I've felt that way too. So often. So very often.

I've been ready with my short stories for years, but I don't have the courage to put them together and approach a publisher. I can't take those first few steps. I'm afraid of rejection, of being told that my writing, about which I feel as a mother feels for her young, isn't good enough. I'm afraid of being told that the world has no use for me or my writing. It makes better sense to hide my writing, to only risk exposing some of it to the feeble recognition, and relative obscurity and, dare I say it -- safety, that this blog provides.

The conversation with L also helped me realise how slow I have been at taking the first step. How I have been wrong in having high expectations of my children when I appear to be incapable of taking my own advice.

But children are far quicker on the uptake than we are. They quickly realise that the fear of falling is nothing compared to the joy of being able to walk. And as simply as that, one day, when you are busy doing something else, they will take those first steps. And having taken them, they will walk all day, as if their little minds realise that they have wasted a lot of time and there is much ground that needs to be covered.

Maybe it is time I learned something from my kids about the importance of taking that first step, no matter how difficult or frightening it seems.


(This post has been written in response to the prompt, First Steps, on GBE 2.)





Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Book Review: A SUMMER OF SUNDAYS

Title: A Summer of Sundays
Author: Lindsay Eland
Publisher: Egmont, USA









Most middle children will answer to the injustice imposed upon them by the cruelty of a birth order. Every milestone has already been clocked by their older sibling, and nothing they do can match the charm and inventiveness of their younger sibling.

Imagine then the plight of twelve-year-old Sunday Fowler, who is the middle child of six siblings. In spite of being intelligent, attractive, sensible and sensitive, Sunday suffers inattention from her parents. Her naughtier brothers and her older sisters are all remembered for their distinctive personalities.

Her parents have a tendency to remember her name only when they have a chore in mind for her. At all other times, she is referred to by one of her other two sisters’ names.

Growing up in a family that is so large that a dinner gong is required to summon everyone together for meals, Sunday longs to become more visible to her parents. Other than her younger brother, Bo, none of her other siblings, including two older sisters and two younger brothers care much for her.

One summer, her dad undertakes a project to remodel a library in the town of Alma, Pennsylvania, the home of Lee Wren, the famous author of modern-day classic, The Life and Death of Birds. Determined to do something that will earn her fame and a headline in the Alma Gazette, and most importantly, the regard of her parents, Sunday can’t quite make up her mind about what she should do? Should she save somebody’s life? Or foil a robbery attempt?

The necessity for coming up with a workable plan is heightened, when the family, driving down to Alma, forget Sunday behind at the gas station. When they return two hours later, it is because they had taken the wrong road. No one it seems has missed her for those two hours. It is a cruel reminder to Sunday that this summer is all she has to turn the spotlight firmly on herself.

In Alma, she meets an 11-year-old boy, Jude Zachariah Caleb Trist, who lives with his single mother and her boyfriend, who aspires to be Jude’s stepfather. Jude becomes the only friend Sunday has had, but, being the only son of an over-possessive single mother, even he thinks the world of her family.

Sunday finds the manuscript of a novel hidden in a box in the library. The box also contains some letters addressed to “The Librarian.” She decides to find the author of the manuscript, hoping that the discovery of the author’s identity will be the one thing she needs to fulfill her aim. Having eliminated other potential candidates, she settles on Ben Folger, the town recluse and one-time librarian, as the author of the manuscript. But she needs proof to support her claim.

Getting proof is not going to be easy, considering Ben’s reputation for locking little children up in his basement dungeon before eating them. Raw.

Sunday will do whatever it takes to get that proof, even if it means putting her life in danger and spending the night in a cemetery.

I found the character of Sunday most delightful. She reminded me of, well, ahem, (vigorous clearing of the throat) – me.

I too am a middle child. Of course, I am the middle of three children, not six, as poor Sunday had to contend with. But the trait that I could identify most with was the voraciousness with which she devours books. Like me, Sunday too reads books as fast as possible, quite as if there wasn’t enough time to read all the books she wants to.

Also, like me, she has a thing for libraries. As she says, “There wasn't a place I could think of that was more magical than a building bursting with books and stories and words...

The story is filled with characters who love books. Like the late Mr Bodnar who came over from Paris with his wife, his suitcase only containing books. No clothes or socks or even underwear. His logic? As he tells his wife, “I can replace these, but not my books.

There’s a reference to India too. Folger tells Sunday that India is his favourite place. “There’s a magic in India that you can’t really explain. The colours, the people, the beauty, the ugliness – all of it mixed together.” I thought that was a most apt description of India.

Eland has done a fantastic job of creating the characters. While Sunday comes across as sweet and precocious, even her brothers, especially the obsessed-with-poop-CJ, and her sisters, and others manage to stand out.

What I didn’t like about this book was that certain portions tended to drag on. About halfway through the book, it became evident whose manuscript it was. Why Sunday had to continue to investigate other potential candidates when the truth was staring her in the face was beyond me. Also, the end was not quite satisfying. Considering that Sunday was so close to betraying her friends, I felt that a little more drama was called for to make her struggles with herself, and her eventual resolution of her dilemma, appear believable.


Still, A Summer of Sundays is worth reading for the bitter-sweet that is every family, and for Sunday and her love for books. I’d recommend this book for middle school children.




I received a free Kindle book version of A Summer of Sundays from NetGalley in exchange for this fair review.




Monday, August 05, 2013

Book Review: MY STROKE OF LUCK

Title: My Stroke of Luck: Alphabet to Author
Author: Vijay Santhanam
Publisher: Hay House India
Pages: 231








Vijay Santhanam was a regional marketing director for BP (auto lubricants), in Singapore, when he suffered a paralytic stroke. While most people would have resigned themselves to living a less active lifestyle, this strong-willed man, then only 41 years old, decided that he was going to work hard towards regaining his health and restoring his physical and mental faculties.

His efforts helped him to pick up the threads of his active life. They also encouraged him to seek to learn more about the human brain, its capabilities and strengths. These fascinating nuggets of information along with his experiences of the distress he suffered and how he coped with the aftermath of the stroke are what he has put down in his book, My Stroke of Luck: Alphabet to Author.

Starting as a splitting headache that wouldn’t go away, the stroke announced itself through a number of tell-tale indications. Any one of these indications could have served as a red flag and urged him to seek prompt medical attention, if only Santhanam had been able to recognize them as warning signs.

Within hours of the stroke, Santhanam’s left brain was affected so badly that the right side of his body was completely paralysed. Similarly, brain functions that resided in the left brain were impaired. Santhanam could not name the city and the country he lived in (Singapore) nor the country he hailed from (India). Yet strangely he still retained an understanding of the characteristics of both countries.

Nor could he remember even a single letter of either his own or his wife’s name. Nor a single digit of his own cell phone number or that of his wife. But the memory that they were scheduled to fly to India on October 27, 2006, to watch India play the Aussies or to the West Indies in April 2007 to watch the cricket World Cup remained. It was this memory that served as a huge motivation for recovery, when Kainaz, his wife, said that she would not cancel any of the tickets, just in case.

Even though the promise of the cricket holiday was a huge inducement, the fact was that the stroke had left Santhanam feeling extremely debilitated. It left him incapable of speech and even of articulation of syllables such as Aa. The affliction in the left brain left him feeling helpless as regards simple linguistic concepts such as He versus She, Left versus Right etc. In addition, he lost the ability to read, basic mathematical ability, colour recognition etc. Nor could he understand anything anyone said to him unless it was repeated slowly more than a few times.

However, since Santhanam’s right brain was unaffected, he still had visual images stored in his brain. And it was the realization that even though he had lost some abilities, he still retained others, that encouraged him to take the first steps towards self-improvement.

The book offers details on the various types of therapy that Santhanam had to undergo. It is written from the perspective of a layman for laypeople and attempts to give readers an understanding of what a person goes through after suffering a stroke.

From the beginning, Santhanam comes across as a fighter. When the doctor said that there would be one session each of Speech therapy, Physical therapy and Occupational therapy each day, to be increased to two sessions each once progress was observed, Santhanam fiercely insisted on two sessions of each therapy every day, to be reduced to one each if he was unable to cope.

Slowly Santhanam’s self motivation began to yield results. He taught himself to sign with his left hand, and, with the help of trained therapists and motivated self-learning, re-learned the English alphabet, brushed up on grammar and vocabulary, and later relearned Tamil and Hindi, the way a child might, and yet not quite like that. For he still had some memories of the content beyond the letters and the vocabulary he had to learn.

It was a slow learning process the second time around, yet Santhanam mastered it sufficiently and ended up writing two books on cricket. He also resumed his hectic work life and took up his responsibilities at work.

Santhanam lauds the support provided by family members and friends, all of whom have been named in the Acknowledgements section. He also credits the support given by his wife and the food from home and his friends’ kitchens.

The narration is simple, linear and methodical and concerns the period immediately before the stroke and four years after it. Santhanam gives us as many details as possible without drowning us in scientific information. The book gives an insight into how an individual facing an affliction could, with sheer will power and determination, bounce back to health and activity.

My only grouse was that there was altogether too much information relating to cricket and chess. Of course, these portions are not without a context. Santhanam had used his passion for cricket and chess to set himself certain tasks which eventually aided in his recovery. The only issue is that these portions would have been better placed in a sports-themed book, as they tend to detract from the stimulating element of his story. I also think that better proofreading could have helped avoid some easily preventable grammatical errors.



But these minor issues aside, Santhanam does a good job of relating the inspiring story of how he drove himself to fight the feelings of frustration and distress to regain control of his body and life.


The book was received as part of Reviewers Programme on http://thetalespensieve.com/reviewers-sign-up/">The Tales Pensieve
.






Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Best Days of My Life

You can get the Cynthia Rodrigues out of Xavier's, but you cannot get the Xavier's out of Cynthia Rodrigues. Years after leaving college, this is one truth that stands firm. You only have to mention the name of the college for me to get all nostalgic and race into flashback mode.
Post-class X exams, when I made known my desire to join St Xavier's College, Bombay, I was warned by all and sundry that it was a very degenerate place. Drugs were freely snorted on the campus and in the classrooms. The atmosphere was overly permissive with couples smooching everywhere and indulging in scandalous and sinful acts. This was the gist of everyone's dire pronouncements against the college. I doubt any of the many people who warned me against it had actually stepped foot inside the campus. It was a case of a bad reputation getting ahead faster.


I don't know why I had insisted on joining Xavier's. No one we knew had gone to Xavier's at that time. Subsequently many have, but none at that time. I knew nothing about Xavier's, of its fine traditions or its glorious history. I had not even seen pictures of the college.


The name had fired my imagination, that is all. To fight for my right to go to Xavier's, I resorted to every melodramatic trick I could think of. I refused to eat, even showing a saintly aversion when Mum tried to tempt me by cooking my favourite dishes. I announced grandly that it was Xavier's or nothing. If I couldn't go to Xavier's, I would give up my education. Fortunately, my parents were too sensible to be taken in by these stupid threats. After approximately a week of holding on to a hardline stance, my parents, having made an informed decision, agreed to let me join Xavier's.


And that was when the chilling import of what I had earned first hit me. What if I didn't like it? What if it really was degenerate? How could I possibly save face?


The admission form had been picked up by my cousins. We lived in Thane and Xavier's was in VT (now CST). For a Bombayite, whose thinking often follows the linear tracks of the local railways, this was the furthest halt on the Central Railway line. Perhaps that had subconsciously influenced me. I don't know. But the idea of starting something new, something that was physically at the opposite pole from the point at which I was then must have appealed at some level.


When I first went to college with my dad for the admission process, I was prepared to be surprised. This was after all a whole new world, far removed from the sedate convent-school outlook that was mine. As we stepped into the driveway leading to the college, I was transported. My heart beat faster. I had never seen any building quite as beautiful as this. Then when we walked through the commonplace lobby and then into the resplendent Gothic beauty of the quadrangle, every stone block illuminated in the sunlight, I was entranced. I knew I had to be a part of it.


Everywhere I looked, youngsters milled about. I desperately hoped none of the scandalous stuff was happening in plain view. I didn't want my parents to change their mind about admitting me to Xavier's. But there was nothing to worry about.


There was excitement in full force, as many hopefuls like me looked forward to being a part of this world. I remember praying hard. A girl standing next to me in the admission queue asked me my name. When I told her, she said, "Oh, don't worry, of course, you'll get in. This is a Catholic institution. They'll take you in. They are duty bound to take all Catholics in."


Hard as I was praying to be admitted in, I remember wishing that she would turn out to be wrong. Something told me that this was a fine institution, one of the finest. Nay, let me say it. The finest. But I wanted them to take me in because I was intelligent and creative and honest and sensible and had much to gain from here, much to learn, much that I would make my own and then someday, years hence, take out into the big wide world. I wanted them to take me in because I deserved to be in. I wanted the Sorting Hat of Xavier's to think me worthy.

Over the next five, and they were the best years of my life, I learned to take great pride in being called a Xavierite. To a large extent, Xavier's made me the woman I am today. Amid its hallowed halls, I learned that it was as important to question as it was to seek answers. I learned that I was stronger than I thought I was. I learned to get out of my cocoon, and seek out the best in others.

I also learned that the negative reputation that the college had earned was entirely undeserved.

Today St Xavier's College is an autonomous institution. But even then, despite being affiliated to the University of Bombay, there was a breath of freedom that pervaded the place. There was a yearning for education that inspired you to cherish learning for learning's sake, that could not be restrained by any syllabus or curriculum. Most professors encouraged us to call them by their first names, reasoning that we were all on the road to learning from one another. It was a refreshing stance, one that enabled us to see them as friends, to be more understanding of each other.



Laughter resounded within those ancient walls. Nothing was so serious that it couldn't withstand being laughed at. Nothing so lighthearted that it couldn't teach us a solid truth.
There were so many treasures within. The reference library where I first learned to imagine that Heaven had to be a library, the biggest of its kind. The lending library with its tall rows of books that I would eye greedily, even ravenously, wondering if I would ever be able to read them all.


Incidentally, the lending library was where I received my first taste of Western classical music. Every afternoon, they would play classics from Beethoven, Mozart and Handel, among others. Having grown up on the heady music of the BeeGees, Abba, Boney M and Kenny Rogers (that was all the music my Dad had), it was my first initiation into Western classical music.


Those were the best days of my life.




There was another reason that made Xavier's very special. Three more reasons. I made three friends who continue to form a very important part of my life. Angela, Liz, Lo and I were inseparable. It was a friendship that was destined to happen. I always believe that the greatest friendships of our lives are brought to us by some sort of a cosmic radar. An overarching force that skims through thousands of people and then, against all odds, out of the blue, brings to you the people that are the sisters you never had.


We used to call ourselves the GAX (the Great Amigos of Xavier's). I didn't know any Spanish then, so it was only much later that I learned that since we were girls, we should call ourselves amigas. But the original name stuck.


Together we laughed each time one of us was bitter and disappointed. And we cried until our sides ached at nothing at all.


At our third year farewell party, I cried as if my heart was breaking and would never mend again. Friends and classmates tried to comfort me. They promised that we would never lose touch. We would call and write unfailingly (pre-Facebook era). But I was weeping for something more.


I was weeping at having to leave a college that had become home for the five years we had been there. I was weeping for a college that was more than an institution, it was our life.



Thankfully, memories are doorways and they can take us back to our past faster than we can imagine.



This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.







Saturday, August 03, 2013

Anands don't die

“Babu Moshai,” the leading man with the crinkly eyes said to his tall, gawky doctor friend, and viewers smiled in admiration. It was the first time that Hindi cine audiences had come across the term, Babu Moshai, Bengali for a gentleman. But there was no doubt that the term would make a place for itself not only in the lexicon of Hindi filmography but also in the minds and hearts of viewers.

Anand (Hindi for happiness) was the eponymous hero of the film, written and directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Anand (Rajesh Khanna) exemplified the cancer fighter’s motto, ‘I’ve got cancer. Cancer hasn’t got me.’ 

The film begins with Dr Banerjee winning a literary award for a story he has written based on one of his patients, Anand. Then begins the flashback detailing the character of Anand, a man whose unquenchable thirst for life even Cancer could not quell.

An orphan with no family of his own, Anand comes to Bombay to seek treatment for his sickness. Admitted to the clinic of Dr Prakash Kulkarni (Ramesh Deo) for treatment of lympho-sarcoma of the intestine, he rebels against the depressive atmosphere of the hospital and chooses to go home with Dr Bhaskar Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan).

Slowly Anand's charm and sweetness help him gain the affection of all those who come in contact with him.

I am no Rajesh Khanna fan. Even so, Anand is one film I can watch again and again. And again.

I am amazed at the strength and courage that a man on his deathbed needs to have to be able to touch the healthy around him with his philosophy of life. In contrast, so many of us have only to catch the Common Cold and we start moaning as if we were going to die within the hour.

Anand's spirit is undeterred even though he has the misfortune to know that his day of death is fast approaching. Even as the candle of his life melts faster and fiercer, Anand continues to forge new connections and friendships, backslapping random people and hailing them as Old Friend Murari Lal. He explains his strange behaviour by saying that every human being is a transmitter and a receiver; a person transmits a signal or a vibration and another person receives it and becomes a friend. 

Anand's behaviour teaches us an important lesson: that we must live life to the fullest, squeeze every drop of living out of it before it's time to go quietly into the night. In another instance, Anand is attracted to a young girl from a drama company. Since she can speak no other language but Gujarati, he buys himself some Gujarati language learning books in order to be able to converse with her, even though he knows he won't be around to test his language skills.

It was Anand who brought Shakespeare's All the world's a stage into my life. When I heard the Hindi version of those lines, I was impressed beyond belief, even though I was a mere child then. Years later when I studied Literature, I marvelled at the manner in which Hrishida had re-invented Shakespeare's lines.

Every character in the film was carved out so memorably. Even Durga Khote, the mother of Renu, Dr Banerjee's love interest, made her presence felt. As a child, I remember feeling the anguish provoked by her innocent questioning of Anand, as to why he wouldn't be able to make it to the wedding of Dr Banerjee, if it was solemnised a year hence. 

Other characters who left their mark in the film were the matron, Mrs D'Sa, who is stern, yet soft hearted, Dara Singh, the head at the akhada, who is recruited by Anand for the task of teaching some roadside romeos a lesson, and Isa Bhai, the head of the drama company, played by Johnny Walker, who is the one man who eventually answers to the call of Murari Lal.

They are all characters who have become memorable to audiences. Their sheen has not worn off despite repeated viewings.

The songs are another beautiful facet of the film. Zindagi kaisi hai paheli hai -- What a mystery is life. The lyrics of the song bring out the pathos and sadness of knowing that a person who is so full of life is about to be snuffed out forever.

Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye -- When the sun sets in the distance. This song portrays the sadness of seeing death advancing upon a person so inexorably, and of knowing that he has nowhere to hide.

Anand may not be an accurate depiction of a cancer patient. It does not matter if he has not lost his hair to chemotherapy and if his cheer is too good to be believed. The '70s were never the setting for realism in Bollywood.

The best thing about Anand is that Anand mara nahin, Anand marte nahin (Anand did not die. Anands do not die) when so many of us permit ourselves to die a thousand deaths each day.


(This post has been written in response to a prompt on Indiblogeshwaris, inviting posts on memorable Hindi films.)






Friday, August 02, 2013

Matching wits with a 5th grader

NaBloPoMo Theme
One post every day in August
One of my favourite little people, my nephew A, became a 5th grader this year. Suddenly all the factual knowledge that I have accumulated over the years seems inadequate in the face of his voracious appetite for facts as well as trivia, for learning, for tidbits to store away in his mind and memory.

As a reader, I am proud of A. He reads voraciously. He reads children’s books, general knowledge books, children’s encyclopaedias, newspapers etc. During a recent family vacation that the family went on, A could identify every fish in an extremely well stocked and well maintained aquarium, even before his parents had time to read the name on the plaque. When my sister-in-law mentioned this to me, I was filled with pride and admiration for him.

Over the years, A and I have formed a nice tradition of learning between ourselves. “Do you recognize this car, Aunta?” he asks me, thrusting his dad’s well-thumbed copy of Autocar under my nose. The copy is his dad’s but the thumbs and fingers that have given the magazine that well-worn look within a week of its arrival in their house are his. 


The result of this careful study is that while I can identify only a few cars on sight, many of which are no longer even visible on our streets, he can identify cars just by looking at them, and can name cars just by a mere glance at a tyre, radial, dashboard, logo etc. These days, one of his favourite impromptu games is hiding the caption beneath the image of the car and getting me to identify the make.

He gets the answer right about 95 times out of 100. Me? I get a 100% score. Wrong every time.

When A was a little child, I had devised a simple tactic to keep him interested in his meals. We would play Question, Question. I would ask him questions such as “Where is the so-and-so” and he would point at that object, by way of answer. And I would clap and keep score.

When he grew a little older, the questions changed to, “Without looking, tell me the colour of the walls in the kitchen,” or the colour of the bedsheet in the bedroom or even the colour of Mickey Mouse’s shirt on his brother’s T-shirt. His answer would be spot on and I would always be amazed at his powers of observation and retention.

Of course, I would always discourage him from asking me questions, fearing that I would end up displaying my lack of observation skills.

Even later, the questions changed to vocabulary and general knowledge. “Which vehicle has only one wheel?” “A unicycle,” he would shout excitedly. “Which vehicle does Santa Claus ride?” “A sleigh.” “What are the colours of the national flag?” and so on.

There came a time when I no longer trusted in my ability to think up questions on the spot. At one of our mealtime Question, Question sessions, I told my sister-in-law, A’s mother, that A was answering questions faster than I was able to ask them, and that soon I would have to work out a written question paper prior to visiting them.

Back home I am at the receiving end of a barrage of questions. At this point in time, La Niña, my daughter, is old enough to ask me questions. And she has so many of them. Some of the questions are so mind-bogglingly penetrating that I am tempted to leave the question unanswered, so that I can leave their beauty intact, not mar it by seeking to answer it. The questions are like a perfectly wrapped gift whose beauty comes undone the moment one peels away at the wrapping.

These days when I ask A questions, I am no longer the easy questioner I used to be. My senses are on high alert. I am a picture of the utmost concentration as I seek to come up with the perfect question, one that will stump him at least for a little while. But he answers my questions effortlessly, and says, “Aunta, I want a more difficult question.” 

I try desperately to keep up, but always it elicits the same response. "Aunta, I said, difficult question. That one was too easy." I struggle to come up with a tough one. I am afraid that if his attention flags, he might want to turn the tables and ask me a question instead.

Who’s afraid of a 5th grader? I think I am.



Maybe I should get La Niña to ask him questions next time.


(This post was originally written for Parentous, an online community for parenting-related issues).







Thursday, August 01, 2013

All Work And All Play

NaBloPoMo Theme
One post every day in August
Being a Work-At-Home-Mother sounded like a win-win proposition until I was forced to stay at home to look after my own kids while ensuring that it remained business as usual as far as the office was concerned.

It all started when my in-laws expressed a desire to go to their native village for the summer. They’ve always been the de facto carers of my little ones while the Husband and I chase corporate dreams. It’s a job they really enjoy, one that they see as both their duty and their right. This attitude and concern of theirs has been a tremendous support to me and I am able to tackle the pressures at work, knowing that the home front is in two pairs of very capable hands.

And so when the in-laws said that they would like to go on their annual vacation, it led to some frantic thinking and frenetic activity on my part. My senior at work very categorically informed me that working from home as an option could not be offered to me for a variety of reasons. I could, however, apply for leave in order to look after my little La Niña and El Niño. But I would have to take work home and keep to the deadlines that had been set for me at least a month before.

Moving to my parents’ house for the three weeks in question was not an option. My dad was out-of-town right then and my mother has not been too well for a while now. We were all worried about her health. I could not entrust upon her the responsibility of looking after two very hyperactive children, even though she had graciously volunteered to do so, knowing that I would not ask.

A colleague suggested that I leave them at a crèche. I wasn’t sure how well that would work out, considering that they’ve always grown up in the home environment and have not spent so much as a moment in a crèche.

And so I proceeded on leave, with a difference. Work would continue as usual. The advantage of the system was that at least I would be with the children. I would just have to manage my time better, multi-task as best as I could and figure out ways to keep the children occupied and ‘engaged,’ a very popular word with corporates in today’s times.

And so began the task of managing the responsibility. I knew at the outset that it wasn’t going to be easy, but the three weeks I spent chasing the twin goals of children’s welfare and deadline adherence often left me tearing my hair out in frustration.

Every time I switched on my laptop, my children would gather around me, wanting to watch me work. El Niño would threaten to bawl unless I let him sit on my lap while I worked. This forced me to be a one-handed typist and considerably slowed me down. Then La Niña would insist on typing out the names of the whole family in Microsoft Word. She has known the spellings since she was four and is quite proud of her achievement.

To be fair to them, I’ve always been hands-on whenever I have been home. So they naturally expected me to spend as much time with them as possible, to take them out to the park every day, to read to them, play impromptu games with them and generally make maximum use of our time together until Aaji and Baba returned.

Add to that, the fact of my being the only adult interaction that they had throughout the day until the Husband returned home, and you will understand how hard it must have been for them to compete with Mamma’s work ‘distraction’ when once they have had the loving attention of both grandparents.

Suddenly they found Mamma far more amenable to suggestion if they wanted to watch Tom and Jerry or Taarak Mehta ka Ooltah Chashmah on TV or their much-loved DVDs of nursery rhymes and The Adventures of Dora the Explorer. It wasn’t easy, but I learned to understand when their energy levels were at their peak and when they needed winding down. Afternoons were for lazy siestas, sometimes forced, but at least they offered me the opportunity to catch up on work.

At other times, they would try to play by themselves, but they would quickly insist on me participating in their games. I got the feeling that perhaps Baba, their paternal grandfather, is an active playmate of theirs.

The challenge honed my time management skills. It also taught me the benefits of waking up early and sitting up late after the kids were put to bed. It meant sleep deprivation, but once you’re a mother, you are used to the lack of sleep. So what’s new?

The most important thing was that my kids and I enjoyed being together so much. I must do this again, but without the pressure of work hanging on my head.



(This post was originally written for Parentous, an online community for parenting related issues.)






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